At first they kind of made it a dramedy. Then they tested it, and people were like, we don’t want a dramedy at the airport.
—Heather Locklear, New York Times, 19 September 2004
In LAX‘s first scene, the airport director (Michael Murphy) kills himself. He does so in spectacular fashion, walking onto the runway at 2am and waiting, calling for, a 747 to run him down. Splat.
Where to go from here? It’s a question for which LAX doesn’t quite have an answer. First, it does the regular thing, cutting to opening titles, where busy visuals (namely, dated-back-when-Madonna-did-it time-lapsed long shots of runways and terminals) proclaim the start of a new day at the airport. (Point being, perhaps, that travel stops for no man.)
And then LAX heads straight for its very unsecret weapon: Heather Locklear. As airport runways coordinator Harley Random, her entrance is as sensational as Murphy’s exit, though less yucky. Close-ups show her bare feet, her lovely black evening dress cut to her thigh, and a few seconds of her kitty-catty walk to an office, where a picture of her adorns the desk. She puts down her tall, strappy heels and gets the call that informs her that the airport director is dead.
Harley is thus made instantly intriguing: a hard-charging professional, she’s also got time for a high-profile personal life, both aspects to be thrown into serious forward motion with the news that she’s now up for the airport director job. Within seconds, it’s clear that her ride to promotion-ville will not be smooth, as she’s competing with another LAX showboat, terminals supervisor Roger De Souza (Blair Underwood). His first appearance counters Harley’s: he glides into the frame full-bodied, in a long enough shot to demonstrate his sheer grace and utter self-love. Cruising on the escalator and checking himself in the mirror, Mr. Oozing Self-Confidence makes his way through security, where he knows all the workers’ names and even offers to take care of an adorable little Italian girl who, following a solo flight from Europe, appears to have no one to pick her up. Harley, of course, sees through the ruse instantly: Roger plans to show the mayor (who’ll be naming the new director) just how compassionate and hands-on he is. Roger smiles: busted.
These first few minutes of the LAX premiere reveal its familiar premise and erratic tone. The first concerns sexual tension, amplified by careerism. Roger and Harley share an intimate history; so far, it sounds like one night last month, and while both agree upfront not to let “our mistake” affect their working relationship, she notes that she has no guilt to feel, as she’s “not the one who’s married.” Still, they tend to stand very close ton one another as if engaged in stare-down contests, their efforts to intimidate one another stuck in first gear: soapy-seducto eyeline matches. As a means to entice viewers, such will-they-or-won’t-they gaming is tired and then some; at the same time, it’s hard to imagine how else you’d set up a relationship between Locklear and Underwood, two of television’s most dependable sex-injecting players.
This means that secondary players—security chief Tony (Paul Leyden), customs agent Betty (Wendy Hoopes, who used to voice Quinn on Daria), immigration officer Nick (David Paetkau), cop Henry (Frank John Hughes)—have little to do but fill time until Roger and Harley come back on screen. The pilot episode’s feeble efforts to generate airport-plot with these characters underline just how uninteresting the milieu can be. Henry saves a doggie from a potential bomb in a suitcase; and newbie Nick falls for an adorable Filipina girl, arriving to meet her husband-to-be, that is, her ticket to U.S. citizenship papers, in the process learning how manipulative girls desperate to get into the States can be.
Poor idealistic Nick: he offers to sponsor the girl and bring her to his parents to sleep in the spare room, before her fiancé shows up, late. The camera lingers on his sad, disillusioned face as the girl walks away, in slow motion and hand in hand with her overweight dupe, turning to air-kiss at Nick. At just that moment, Betty announces that her drug-sniffing dog Wally is “never wrong,” for the always-focused German shepherd pegged that girl as “trouble” right off. (Okay, so I’m ready to see more of the dog: he’s got chops.) The naïve white boy learns his lesson, and less hauntingly, apparently, than his boss, who tells him he went through a similar desire to “save” a girl when he first started the job, years ago; but, he continues, playing earnest father-figure, “I sent mine back,” and so he still wonders if he did the right thing.
Much as Nick might need to ponder the meaning of his boss’ story, this and the bomb scare storyline serve only as lightweight backdrop, granting no insight into airport politics or the characters who have to deal with each others’ fears and territorial anxieties. Neither do these subplots illuminate the series’ ostensible primary concerns: relationships and airports. You’d think a show set in the nation’s third largest airport (and the introductory dialogue goes some lays out all kinds of statistics, though whom they’re supposed to impress is unclear) would take up that environment with some gusto. But no. LAX might be set anywhere that Locklear could show off her white pantsuit.
But it’s unlikely, given LAX‘s origins as a “dramedy” (conceived some two years before 9/11), that it will push too hard on security lapses, drug trafficking, illegal immigration, terrorism, intoxicated pilots (in this first episode, these are “Russians” who sling sexist comments Harley’s way when she tries to block their departure; Harley, of course, takes them out at the knees). Rather, these concerns appear as jumbled afterthoughts (the supposed bomb—an abandoned suitcase—is a bunch of confetti wired to explode, with a nasty note left by a local activist group, whose shaggy-haired representative the cop is determined to capture. Um, who’s the adversary here?
Such diversions are too bad, for a series set in an airport might have offered smart, politically engaged narratives. What of the dead director, workaholic defined only by his job at LAX? He’s gone in that first instant, barely spoken of again except as a punchline. How did he get on that runway? What drove him to such a public display of desperation? What is it about his job that would make someone so mad? The pressing story for LAX is exactly this: how a major airport conducts business. It might be funny, darkly satirical, maybe surreal, even campy (again, the Locklear factor). In any shape that’s not so blandly conventional as this series, it’s hard to imagine a more compelling subject these days, or a more alarming one.